The Criterion Collection advertises itself as “a series of important contemporary and classic films.” That is an understatement. It’s more accurate to describe Criterion as a moveable museum, containing films from all over the world, preserved in gorgeous detail, unpacked with creator interviews and essays written by film scholars. The folks at Criterion have gathered a community of like-minded individuals who believe that film is art and should be treated as such.
Is it a kind of dream, Floating out on the tide, Following the river of death downstream? Oh, is it a dream? There’s a fog along the horizon, A strange glow in the sky, And nobody seems to know where you go, And what does it mean?
Oh, is it a dream? Bright eyes, Burning like fire. Bright eyes, How can you close and fail? How can the light that burned so brightly Suddenly burn so pale?
Bright eyes. ~“Bright Eyes.” Written by Mike Batt and Sung by Art Garfunkel for Watership Down
Martin Rosen’s 1978 animated film Watership Down is unsettling. In 1978, to release an animated film in the U.S. about cute talking animals that contained bloody violence, nightmarish villains, and fairly adult themes would have been unheard of. Disney had made certain of that. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, in the Criterion interview, says “The tragedy of animation is that most adults see it as a genre instead of a medium. They see it as a genre for children.” Using animals to comment on social concerns has been used widely throughout literature and art for decades. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, and Brian Jacques’s Redwall Saga are only a handful of examples.
Richard Adams, in his beautifully written novel Watership Down, tackles everything from poverty to government corruption to the divisive issue of individual vs. corporate state. Adams’s fantasy world is an epic one and contains its own unique mythologies, theologies, and language. What unites Rosen’s film adaptation and Adams’s novel, however, is the theme of death. What makes the film unsettling is that the entire story rests on the appearance of the mysterious, shadowy Black Rabbit. “Everyone meets the Black Rabbit at one time or another,” says the brave rabbit Hazel (voiced by John Hurt). Gerard Jones, a writer of comics and animation, and I agree: “There’s violence in it, some blood, some pain, some brief but stabbing suspense. What’s most haunting about it, though, is also what sets it apart from nearly everything of its type: its sweet, sad wisdom about the nature of life in the shadow of death” (Jones, “Take Me with You, Stream, on Your Dark Journey”).
The terrifying dictator General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) scared my older sister so badly that she refuses to watch the film, even as an adult. His foaming mouth and droopy eye are rather scary, but the presence of the Black Rabbit is what I recall more strongly. If the film had stuck with good rabbits vs. bad rabbits with the good rabbits winning in the end then, it wouldn’t be such a problem, but, the presence of the Black Rabbit changes the entire tone of the film. It could never be a small child’s film. Art Garfunkel’s warm voice sings “Bright Eyes” as the noble Hazel (John Hurt) is shot by a neighboring farmer’s rifle. The scene is surreal and deeply sad as the young rabbit Fiver (Richard Briers) wanders helplessly and hopelessly, following the embodiment of Death itself into nothingness. The scene still depresses me.
Rosen’s film is a powerful one and it is based on an even more powerful novel. It opens with a scene animated by the great and uncredited John Hubley. Hubley’s Mr. Magoo and other hip, smartass cartoons set the tone for all cartoons in the 50’s and 60’s. Hubley was a pioneer. Rosen asked Hubley to direct the animation of the film, so rumor has it, and Hubley finished the opening creation myth sequence just before he had a seemingly intense creative difference with Rosen, who promptly fired him. Hubley died two weeks later.
Hubley’s creation myth sequence is the most playful scene in the film and it is orchestrated to genius perfection. Adams’s Creator is Frith. El-ahrairah is the trickster folk hero of the rabbits whose fellow rabbits are multiplying at an alarming rate and eating all of the food. Frith commands that El-ahrairah bring order to the rabbits and he haughtily refuses. Thus begins Frith’s punishment of the rabbits. Frith turns many of the world’s animals against El-ahrairah and the rabbits, saying, “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you…”
Rosen’s vision for Watership Down is much more pastoral than Hubley’s. Visually, the animation is stunning. Rosen’s animators spent a good deal of their time actually observing the movements and behaviors of real rabbits in their warrens and captured it as accurately as possible. Fiver (Briers) and Hazel (Hurt) are our protagonists. Hazel is bold, wise, and brave and Fiver is small and waifish. He is also shaking and speaking in a nervous voice. We are reminded, early on, that Adams’s world is a world of fantasy when it is revealed that Fiver has psychic abilities. Fiver has a creepy vision of the fields of his warren covered in blood and he warns Hazel and the rest of the rabbits that something terrible is about to happen.
So begins the journey of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Captain Holly, Blackberry, Silver, Pipkin, and Dandelion into the unknown. This is not a pleasant adventure. Everywhere the rabbits end up, there is a life-threatening hazard. What makes their adventure all the more tangible is that Rosen and his team never remove the rabbits from their natural habitat or experience. We recognize the rural scenery and the rabbits’ enemies; a cat, rabid rabbits, humans with cars, tractors, and guns, and trip wires. We also recognize the themes of politics, moral philosophy, theology, identity, and community. When the rabbits finally meet the creepy and enigmatic Cowslip (Denholm Elliott), he invites them to his warren of abundance where there are spies and deadly silence around every corner.
In the final scene of the film, Rosen captures an elderly Hazel’s encounter with the Black Rabbit of Death perfectly. We know that it is the inevitable ending. The mystery and power of death is, after all, the predominant theme in the film.
What makes Rosen’s account of Adams’s Watership Down all the more powerful and unsettling is that as we watch the film we can feel ourselves holding up a mirror. Hazel, Fiver, and friends might be in their natural habitat, but their natural habitat is ours as well, after all. The barriers between humanity and animal life are broken down, profoundly, by Rosen’s beautiful and startling vision. What is it that joins us together? The sobering inevitability of death.
Josiah Richard Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @JosiahArmstrong and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.